Giles Ellis’s Schofield is a watch house obsessed with the details.
It has taken several years of research, design and manufacture but fledgling English watch brand Schofield is finally ready to wow the watch connoisseurs. Kathryn Bishop meets its perfectionist founder Giles Ellis.
When you first meet Giles Ellis it does not take long to work out that he is a rather dapper man. And when you discover his watch brand, Schofield, you soon realise that he is focused on the finer details in life, with no corners cut and no compromises made.
Founding your own brand and creating a name for yourself is never easy and many would probably agree that to do it in the watch industry, more so as an Englishman attempting to launch an English watch brand, then the odds are likely to be stacked against you. But none of that has put Ellis off.
Like many designers, his obsession to create his own watch brand started with a disappointing shopping trip. When the self-confessed design obsessive went looking for a watch he soon discovered that nothing quite fitted what he liked, not within his budget at least. So he sat down and began designing.
“I didn’t have the skills to assemble the watch but I had the confidence to do design something, so I drew up the case shape, then it evolved and evolved,” he explains.
Ellis says that while he was designing he naturally assumed the he would use “off-the-shelf this and off-the-shelf that” but found that his own particularities began to take over and soon he wanted to design his own watch hands and strap and with it a business plan began to form in his mind.
“For me, launching Schofield came out the fact that I couldn’t afford the watches I liked. Crikey, I’d like an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or a [Patek Philippe] Nautilus; both of those watches are genius to me, but they’re outside my scope of design,” he reveals. “I thought, if I could make the watch I love and other people would love then it had the chance to be a success.”
His confidence was not without planning, however, and Ellis was smart enough to make sure that he could walk before he attempted to run into the watch industry.
“I have studied the industry, gone to Basel for a few years, to get a firm grasp on the industry because I knew I couldn’t design a viable watch without an understanding of how things work.”
Schofield’s debut watches, the Signalman DLC and the Signalman GMT – the second housing a power reserve – finally came into being last year, with the watches selling to pre-orders before they were even assembled. The two timepieces are a striking mix of Ellis’s Englishness and refined detail that comes from manufacturing in Germany, where both the cases and straps are made.
“With the Signalman, I came across so many stumbling blocks but I didn’t want to compromise on anything [so] most of my time was spent finding the right suppliers,” he says. “This is why the watch is made in Germany with parts from 27 suppliers and why its takes 3,000 man hours to bring everything together.”
Of those 27 suppliers, Ellis has one company making the straps, another making his cherry wood presentation boxes and another making the hinges used on the boxes. The Schofield watches house Soprod Swiss movements for the reason that they will make small batches of a movement at a time.
But of everything that has been put into creating the Schofield watches, one of Ellis’s most challenging aspects was the case shape, which he has now patented. He spent almost 18 months seeking out manufacturers who would take on the angled, chamfered case shape of the Signalman. While many wouldn’t consider his design, one company finally took on the assignment.
“Eventually I found someone in Germany, someone who said ‘give it here, we’ll have a go’, and they have done it amazingly,” Ellis enthuses. He says the tolerances in the case are superb and from the feedback gained at Salon QP last November, where the brand officially made its debut, it seems to have been admired by almost everyone who saw it.
As a man that confesses to living and breathing design, his present career path is a long way from his former profession making musical instruments – ukuleles, banjos, even his own amplifiers – but has taken some influence from his love of Americana and old Western films, combined with his admiration for solid engineering.
“The Schofield name comes from the type of a revolver that Jesse James used,” Ellis explains. “I designed a logo for my amplifiers that had two Schofield guns back-to-back and the name has stayed with me as a little nod back to Americana”. Likewise the fonts Schofield uses on the dial and in its brochures and website are classic American fonts.
In a further design twist, the caseback of the Signalman is engraved with a lighthouse, which may seem a far cry from the dust and drama of a classic Western movie but exists, like every feature of a Schofield watch, for a reason.
“The case shape is reminiscent of the central section of a Fresnel lens, the lens in the top of a lighthouse,” explains Ellis. “I’ve always loved lighthouses; they’re cool and they represent so much about my brand. It’s a metaphor for being a beacon, for having impeccable timing and precision and is testament to British engineering and design.”
When asked whether it has been tough to take what is essentially a watch designed for himself – penned by his own hand, designed to suit his style and personality – to a wider market he says no, adding that it is because he is so sure of the product.
“It’s interesting, you kind of get this confidence that what you’ve designed is OK,” he says. And so far Schofield has won a great deal of positive feedback among a knowledgeable and discerning crowd of watch fans.
“The Signalman is a hard watch to articulate,” he says. “We had to show it, people had to handle it, and Salon QP was an opportunity to have attention come to us rather than us finding it.”
Ellis says that while the watches are Schofield’s first offering, they are not naive. He spent several years working on them, asking people how the watches made them feel, analysing their responses and sometimes finding out things he had previously overlooked. In fact, elements of the final design were entirely serendipitous.
“I was sent some ridged watch straps by accident because the guys in Germany misread my email,” he says. Ellis says he was disappointed but decided to try the straps on a prototype to see how it looked. “There was a line that continued through the watch and I thought ‘hang on, it works’. It just happened so I ran with it.”
The calf leather-lined straps are also machine made, another decision so as to avoid flaws in the manufacturing chain that might arise from hand-made straps, which sometime lack quality control.
Ellis has made rules for himself and says that a huge design document backs up the brand, but says it is also about having fun. “We do have some flippant rules, like the front of business is serious and back is fun. It’s same with the watch and even the brochure.”
He also has plans to carry out a photo shoot with “men of character” and says the watch has been produced for the active gent. “It’s a watch for blokey blokes,” explains Ellis. “It’s a cliché but the Signalman is the watch you can wear with a T-shirt but also looks sharp with a suit. It’s not fashion-led; it won’t go out of style.”
Launching a company is no mean feat but to date Ellis has been developing Schofield solo, with no financial backing.
“It’s my project. I don’t have a lot of money, I haven’t sold a software business for a million pounds to get me started,” he laughs.
Ellis says he wants Schofield to develop a cult following and maintain an underground nature – something that will come with ease due to its small-scale production output.
“We want people to feel like we’re brand they’ve discovered, like buried treasure,” he says. “We want that feeling you get when you come across something special; we want to get people talking.”
Indeed, Schofield is already causing a stir, so much so that Ellis has a number of discerning gents (and women, his wife wears a Signalman) beginning their own collection of Schofields, having snapped up both styles of Signalman.
He is also planning to host events for his clients and those interested in the brand during 2012; a gentlemen’s club of sorts where guest can have a drink, catch up, talk watches and more, but without all the spiel that comes with a brand exercise.
New watches are in the pipeline and Ellis hopes to extend the Schofield line with a timepiece that might have a guilloche dial – in his own pattern, of course – potentially crafted in tungsten with classic looks. He’s also toying with the idea of a two-handed timepiece.
While Ellis admits his next watch will probably be more expensive that the Signalmans, which retail for less than £3,400, it will be because of the exclusivity. “They’re expensive to manufacture because they’re made in small numbers,” he explains.
But Ellis doesn’t have plans to get mass production underway. “I am not intending to sell through a distributor. I’m fussy, I want it in a few exclusive places,” he smiles, listing off Jura and Kronometry 1999 as retailers he is fond of. “But that’s the trouble with watches: you have the aspiration and want to keep it classy but you do have to get watches on wrists. But you do what you can, and get on with it.”
Ellis says that unlike most companies, for him the watch came before the business and with that came different values to many of his counterparts. “I’m not like most brands that said ‘right I want to make a watch, I need a designer, a manufacturer’, that’s not me,” he says. “This watch came from a different place with different values. When before has this been done apart from the guys who sit and make watches themselves?”
Schofield is certainly set for a busy year. On social networking sites and watch blogs the brand is already being praised.
“Yes, there are lots of interesting things going on for Schofield. It’s all about staying ahead of the game, because I’ve shown people everything now: my watches, my presentation box, my brochure, they know all the details.”
For a moment you wonder whether Ellis might be worried about Schofield’s next move, but that confidence is back in a heartbeat.
“They’re all realising now, other brands, that sometimes it’s about more than just the watch,” he says. And Schofield and its Signalmans are indeed more than that – right now it is Ellis’s life.
This article has been taken from the February issue of WatchPro magazine. To view a digital version of the issue click here.